My father used to say that when he died, we should just cram his body into a garbage bag and put it out with the trash. As a doctor, he knew about all the goopy things that our pretty skins hide. He was accustomed to the idea that after death our bodies retain nothing of the animating spirit that once looked out of our eyes, and believed that dead bodies should be discarded without sentimental references to the person they once held.
We don’t like to think about death. Hard as it is to believe in our own death, it is even harder to envision what is happening to our deceased loved ones’ bodies, the way they are putrefying and disintegrating in the ground, just like the burst-open deer by the roadside or the blackened potatoes in the bin. If you don’t believe in heaven and hell, or paradise, or reincarnation, then all you have is this life. This brief, unrehearsed life.
In this short novel Crace makes us look at death. Coolly and unsentimentally, he opens with the bodies of two middle-aged zoologists, murdered in the dunes of a remote beach, and describes the effects of sun and rain, beetles and flies. Braided into this dispassionate report are several other stories. One starts from the murder and retraces the couple’s steps backwards through the hours of that fatal day. Another tells the story of how Joseph and Celice first met, at that same beach, and how they first came together, cradled by those same dunes. Yet another story goes forward in time, as their estranged daughter is alerted that they are missing and begins to search for them.
I should have hated this. I am usually irritated by stories that jump around in time or person, much less both together. It is a tribute to Crace’s writing that these shifts never disturb the flow of his story; each seems like the most natural progression in the world. With each shift, he quickly locates us in the appropriate story, sometimes with a person’s name, sometimes by actually providing a heading with the date and time. In the description of the book on Crace’s website, it’s mentioned that these stories moving forwards and backwards in time mimic the movement of tides, which I think may contribute to their easy transitions. Also, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, the shifts came just as I was ready to move on. The descriptions of the bodies, while scientific, are beautiful in their own way; they are almost poetic, not just by the close attention to detail but by the quality of the language. Yet there’s only so long that I want to read about ants and maggots. Also, as quirky and interesting as the two zoologists and their daughter are, I found it hard to care about them. Moving between storylines kept me from getting impatient with the characters.
The writing is brilliant, as I’ve said. Even without caring about Joseph and Celice, I found their story powerful, especially what they found to love in each other and the adjustments they made to accommodate each other during their long marriage. At the moment of his death, Joseph reaches out and takes hold of Celice’s ankle. That tenuous and tender connection, which remains throughout the book, reminded me of something I saw in a private chapel at Lullingstone Castle in Kent: statues of a man and a woman, lying on their separate tombs, yet in the space between, their hands joined. Later, reading Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb”, I wondered if this was perhaps a more common funerary motif than I’d thought. Looking at Crace’s website, I see that John Banville, in his review of the book, also was reminded of Larkin’s poem. It’s absurd that such a small gesture should be so moving, yet I was moved.
I was reminded too of Kevin Brockmeier’s novel A Brief History of the Dead which I blogged about a few years ago. The story takes place in the land of the dead, a kind of purgatory, where people remain until the last person who knew them or remembered them dies, suggesting that our immortality consists of the memories we leave behind. Crace’s book does not offer the idea of purgatory or any kind of afterlife to take the sting out of death, but by recounting the story of Joseph and Celice’s life together, he gives their going a kind of grace.
When my father went, we did not put him out with the trash. We held a memorial service where my brother recounted family stories while wearing a cap emblazoned with “See Rock City”. Then we buried my father next to his parents. Such rituals may be a sham—and a waste of good compost—but they were a comfort to my mother. Then again, we grown children disrupted the interment with a snowball fight, so all was not lost.